Monday, April 02, 2012

Don Juan and Casanova

MrD must be feeling like a fight; he has more energy than I for dealing with these people. But it started me thinking about Don Juan and Casanova. We often lump Casanova and Don Juan together, but the two types are very different; radically different personalities, and very different accounts of how seduction works. The difference between them (besides the fact that Casanova was a real man and Don Juan a fictional character) can be roughly stated in a very simple way: Casanova was a failed intellectual, and Don Juan was a woman.

Giacomo Casanova more than anything wanted to go into medicine, but was forced by his guardian to go into law, which he hated. He hated his profession. More than that, he was intellectually ambitious: one of Casanova's lifelong ambitions was to be taken seriously as a serious thinker, one of the great contributors to civilization, and in consequence he spent his life going from place to place to hobnob with the famous minds of his day. He never managed it. Everywhere he went, it was his reputation as a seducer, not as a philosopher, that preceded him. While he did develop many friendships with important eighteenth-century intellectuals, he never was taken very seriously. It's interesting, as a philosopher, to read Casanova's Story of My Life; you can see he has a lot of potential, but there's still always a shallowness to his thought, and it is difficult not to conclude that this shallowness is connected with his lifestyle, which was largely devoted the pursuit of pleasure, which he once called the chief business of his life. He was constantly bored, so it is unsurprising that he turned to gambling and sex, but gambling and sex would henceforth keep him from the greatness he really wanted. And even worse, his extracurricular activities brought him down in a way that they have often brought would-be intellectuals down: he was arrested and thrown into a prison cell with nothing to do but reflect on the failures of his life. He claims to have made a daring escape in a story involving all sorts of intrigue and adventure -- he certainly escaped, but may have embroidered the details. His experience in prison had made him realize that he had wasted his life and that he needed to do more. Unfortunately, his choice for doing this was to become a con artist; he went around pretending to do magic. He had an almost perfect memory, so he could easily perform feats that others thought amazing, and he was quite clever and ingenious, so he could dupe a fool as well as anyone. From there he went on to spying, and then, after a failed mission, to fleeing. After some time, he eventually tried to start over yet again, beginning a translation of the Iliad, which he did eventually publish (it flopped). He got into a famous philosophical dispute with Voltaire; nothing much came of it. His last words were said to be have been, "I have lived as a philosopher and I die as a Christian," and he really meant both, but he seems to have had a pretty liberal idea of what counted in both cases, and certainly he is not really remembered as either. His name went down in history, and was remembered, but not for what he most wanted to be remembered for. Instead, of course, he was remembered for seducing women and, in his lifetime, for having escaped prison; his very fame was a mark of the sort of failure that haunted him throughout his life. Charles de Ligne once said he knew everything but the things in which he thought himself expert -- Casanova considered himself great at literary comedy, and his comedies were unfunny; he thought himself a great and underappreciated philosopher, but his philosophical works were barely philosophical-- and it is the same Charles de Ligne who gave what could perhaps be considered the motto of his life: "He is proud for the reason that he is nothing."

The irony, of course, is that all the great intelligence was really there, all the native philosophical talent, and it was precisely this that gave him his reputation as a seducer. Casanova was not a beautiful man, and due to a rather hard-lived life became uglier over time. But he was always successful with women because of his wit and ingenuity: he strategized seductions, took the intelligence of women seriously and listened and argued with them accordingly, analyzed them carefully and exploited their weaknesses, charmed them and eased their guilt with his witty words and jokes. But the success of his intellect here was the root of its ruin in matters he thought genuinely important. Hardly anyone reads Casanova, and no one reads him to find profound thought.

Don Juan is very different. He is a fictional libertine, passionately devoted to seducing women and spending the rest of the time fighting their husbands, brothers, and fathers. There are several different versions of him, but the variation is around a core set of ideas. People tend not to remember the basic story, which is unfortunate, because it's an interesting one -- the story of Don Juan is about a man dragged down to hell by a man he murdered, the ghost of the father of one of his conquests, and he faces down the Devil, impudent to the last. The Devil tells him that everyone in hell has a job to do, and that Don Juan, since he was such a fool, will be a jester. Don Juan protests that he deserves more and boasts about how his conquests prove him to be more of a man than any other man. The Devil then proposes a game: the Devil will concede and Don Juan will get his way if only he can correctly remember the name of just one of the women he has seduced. A long line of images of women parade by him; some he cannot remember at all, some he gives the wrong name for, some he comes close with but cannot quite get the name right, until only one woman is left. "Ah," says the Devil, "here is the one and only beautiful woman you seduced who truly loved you with all her heart." Don Juan looks at her and doesn't know who she is at all. So the Devil wins, as he usually does, and in more ways than one.

Different versions will emphasize or modify different things about the basic story, but it's striking in practically every version. One of the things that ends up puzzling people who come to the Don Juan tradition is that critic after critic through the centuries, especially in the Spanish tradition, diagnose Don Juan as effeminate and even homosexual. That is not what one would expect to be said of the legendary seducer of women. But the Spaniards are right, and anyone can see it if they look more closely. Don Juan is handsome, but in almost every branche of the tradition in which his physical appearance is described, he is described in feminine terms. He is a pursuer of pleasure, and, except for his constant involvement in fighting (which he actually can't avoid, simply because of what he does) and the seduction of women itself, he usually avoids every masculine occupation and task. Casanova seduces by out-thinking his targets, trapping them intellectually and turning their own feelings against them; Don Juan, however, is all feeling to Casanova's reasoning. So much so that he takes on the attributes that long literary prejudice -- in which women are less rational and more emotional than men -- attributes to women. Don Juan seduces woman by being mentally like them; they give in to him because they fall in love with a darker version of themselves reflected in him. Don Juan does what he does by playing the role of the Seductress; he just happens to be a man doing it to women. Practically every literary trope, every stereotype, associated with the belle dame sans merci, with the heartless woman leaving a trail of broken hearts, is applied, in one version or other, to Don Juan. He has an almost pathological indifference to the emotional suffering of others -- expressed in the same terms in which poets talk about the heartless woman. He loves only himself -- in the same way the poets say the heartless woman does. He is manipulative in everything he does in order to get the pleasure he wants -- just like the literary stereotype of the heartless woman.

This is very subtle in Spanish and Italian versions of the story, but undeniably there. It comes out in full force in the major English version of the story, though, that of Byron. Indeed, it becomes so obvious in Byron's version that it's impossible to avoid. Byron's Don Juan (the J is an English and not a Spanish J) is described in overwhelmingly feminine terms; when he is compared to legendary and mythological figures, it is usually to female ones; and it goes so far that Don Juan ends up wearing women's clothing in order to sneak into a sultan's harem. And one of the things that is noticeable in Byron's Don Juan, since Byron spends so much time on the mode of seduction, is that Don Juan doesn't actually do much. He is almost completely passive all the way through. Byron's Don Juan seduces by taking such a passive stance that women are forced into the role of the sexual aggressor: they respond to him in the ways associated with male lust because he sexually objectifies himself so completely; they chase him because he does nothing but make himself chase-able. Women find him irresistible because he makes himself the woman of the relationship, i.e., because he takes on the role, and enages in the actions, that are traditionally assigned to women.

It's generally thought that there's more than a little of Byron himself in his Don Juan, and we see exactly the same thing in the author, albeit not so blatantly. Byron was a handsome man admired for his almost feminine features; Camille Paglia notes somewhere that almost every painting we have of Byron depicts him in poses usually reserved for women with beautiful necks. His friends described his voice as extremely pleasant, but more effeminate than you would expect; he was extraordinarily charming but also hysterically emotional (in ways that reminded his friends of an exaggerated stereotype of a woman). He was very fussy about his appearance. He used curling in his papers to make his naturally curly hair even curlier, was so terrified of becoming fat that he almost certainly was anorexic, and may have been bulimic as well. And he was, of course, a womanizer. This sort of elaborately effeminate but still male heterosexuality, marked just barely off from the stereotype of femininity by biology and a focused athleticism derived solely from necessity, is a perfect fit; if we did not know better we might think Don Juan a loose copy of Byron himself.

There's a longstanding literary trope about the danger of a woman falling in love with herself. Perhaps the purest form of this is Milton's Eve. Newly created and newly awake, Eve looks around and discovers her equal when she accidentally looks into a pool. Because she is brand new and doesn't understand the concept of a reflection yet, she is delighted at the beauty and vivacity of her new companion. God informs her of her mistake and tells her that her true companion is coming; she looks up, sees Adam -- and finds him a little disappointing. Of course, being completely innocent, she quickly learns to enjoy him for his own sake and love him for all the things she is not, but it is also a foreshadowing of the weakness -- it is not yet a flaw -- that will eventually be her downfall: her attention can be drawn by a sufficiently attractive image of herself, and this is precisely what the Serpent will exploit, by giving her a mental image of herself that is splendid and telling her that she can be that if she will only taste a bit of fruit. Eve's circumstances are unusual; only in her case can the trope be that blatant, because only she can look at her own image with complete innocence and no self-doubt. But more complicated variations of the trope are easy enough to find. But it is precisely this trope on which the character of Don Juan builds: women are seduced by him because the fall in love with the image of woman -- feminine, but also passionate, unrestrained, devoted to pleasure -- that they see in him. They want to be with him because they want to be him. And, of course, he is narcissistic: what he delights in when he looks in his lover's eyes is not his lover or her eyes but how impressive he looks reflected in them. Thus she pursues herself as reflected in him as he pursues himself reflected in her. Seduction becomes a sort of interpersonal narcissism, in which Don Juan is irresistible to women because (in terms of literary stereotypes) he is exactly what a woman would be if a woman just happened to be a man.

It should go without saying that this is all literary convention and trope, not rigorous psychology; poets may make things up, and when what they say corresponds to reality it is sometimes not because they have deep insight but because we are imitating poetry.

The difference between Casanova and Don Juan, then, is the difference between seduction by mind games and seduction by passionate rapport, between reason and passion; what they share is that they are both excessively devoted to pleasure. What they also both share is failure: Casanova fails to find his destiny, thus ending up as a famous nobody; and Don Juan fails to find himself, thus ending up in hell.


  1. DarwinCatholic4:44 PM


    The first thing I found myself thinking of given the topic of your post, was the passage in Cassanova's Chinese Restaurant (book 5 out of Anthony Powell's mid-century Brit-Lit cycle Dance to the Music of Time) in which the characters find themselves debating the differences between Casanova and Don Juan off and one throughout the novel -- triggered by a discussion as to whether one of them should attempt to seduce a waitress as said Chinese Restaurant.

    Looking up that first instance, however, I find that the characters' description of the difference between the two doesn't tally all that well with your far more detailed description.

    Though given that this is in the context of a group of artists and music critics who've already had a good dose to drink, we may perhaps imagine that they are simply getting it mixed up.

    (As for why I chose to pick such a lengthy fight -- I can't quite say.  It seemed vaguely satisfying as the time.  Tt does seem to be blowing over now.  All to the good.)

  2. branemrys5:16 PM

    Interesting. It looks like it's Mozart's operatic version, Don Giovanni, that they have in mind; and I haven't thought in any detail how the operatic Don Giovanni maps on to the Don Juan story in general. The description of Casanova didn't seem to me to be all that accurate, though, so perhaps you're right that they are mixing things up a bit at this point.

    There are days when I feel like jumping into a fray and swinging, myself.

  3. Eloise4:57 AM

    and also Verdi's Rigoletto


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